Taking care of business from home: Whirlpool employees use flexible schedules to their benefit

Jon Barfell, a brand experience manager with Whirlpool Corp., frequently works from home or on the road. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

Jon Barfell, a brand experience manager with Whirlpool Corp., frequently works from home or on the road. (Don Campbell | HP Staff)

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

BENTON HARBOR — Jon Barfell spends a lot of time out of the office and near a laptop.

Whether that’s on the road or at his home office in St. Joseph, Barfell says he spends between 10 to 15 hours a week working away from his work office. That includes working weekends and a few hours after 5 p.m.

The decision to let employees telecommute for part or all of their daily work has gained traction over the past decade.

In fact, 23 percent of U.S. workers now do at least some of their work from home, according to a June report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s up from 19 percent in 2003 in a shift that accompanied a 2-point drop in the percent of U.S. employees who show up to a designated work place either some or all of the time.

As a brand experience manager with Jenn-Air, Barfell is on the road, working with local magazines and going to different cities and representing the Whirlpool brand.

“There’s a lot of working out of hotels and on planes,” he said. “But after those long days and long hours, sometimes you need time at home to recharge. It’s really nice to be able to spend the next two or three days working from home after being on the road for so long.”

He said it’s the flexibility that helps him.

Because his job is not the normal eight-to-five job, he can answer emails and react any time during the day.

Lynanne Kunkel, vice president of Global Talent Development for Whirlpool Corp., said the company considers working from home one of a variety of flexible work arrangements.

Whirlpool is a global business with a broad geographical footprint, which doesn’t limit workers to staying at their desks.

“Somebody somewhere is working every minute of every day at Whirlpool,” Kunkel said. “We do a lot of collaboration globally and have many people in global roles whose responsibilities cross many countries and time zones.”

At Whirlpool, Kunkel said some employees work remotely, who are in a different home location than where they have an office.

St. Joseph resident Kristy Proos has a lot on her plate. At Whirlpool, she is the finance director for global production organization. At home she helps raise three children and supports her husband, state Sen. John Proos.

Due to the amount of time spent with her family and work, Proos found a more flexible work schedule.

Proos started working at Whirlpool in 1999, where she was logging 50 to 60 hours a week. She did a job share after having her second child, where she split duties with another person and worked three days a week.

After her third child was born, Proos left Whirlpool for a full year sabbatical. When she came back she began a more flexible work arrangement where she works about 32 hours a week.

She has been doing so for the last decade.

Proos works Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. – a time designated to allow her to take her children to school and pick them up at the end of the day.

“My first flexible work arrangement was almost out of necessity,” Proos said. “I had two kids under the age of 2 at the time and a husband starting in politics. It was not a hard adjustment at all.”

Her working from home comes into play when she has a 7 a.m. global conference call or when she comes home and has a few more items to take care off.

“A typical day is here in the office,” Proos said. “Being in a global role allows me to make a conference call to China from my living room in the early morning.”

Advantages vs. disadvantages

Two studies have proved working from home can be beneficial and hampering.

A team of researchers at Stanford University performed a study tracking 255 employees at a Chinese travel site called Ctrip. Researchers found that employees working from home experienced a 13 percent increase in productivity.

However, home office environments may not stimulate everyone equally. Employees who procrastinate appeared less likely than others benefit from work-from-home policies in a 2014 study at the University of Calgary.

In some cases, the reasoning may be a convenience for both companies and employees.

If fewer employees at an office means less day-to-day overhead, there can be reciprocal benefits. Employees can save on commute costs and get more time to focus on their work, while employers enjoy fewer information technology and maintenance problems.

Barfell said the only disadvantage of working from home is missing the interaction from co-workers. However, since the advancement of technology, the face-to-face meetings can still be accomplished via online video conferencing.

“We work well off of each other, but having that healthy mix of working from home and being in the office is a nice mix,” Barfell said. “It’s nice to get back, catch up and have that face time.”

The biggest advantage to Proos’ flexible schedule is getting to spend more time with her family.

“I help coach soccer and basketball. It allows me to be a volunteer for junior achievement and the United Way,” Proos said. “It gives me the opportunity to help me develop my children, who are 14, 12 and 9, as they grow up. It also helps me support my husband and his work.”

Who it works for

Having that flexibility for the work force is critical to having a competitive business and to attracting new talent to Whirlpool.

Kunkel said the millenial generation expects this kind of flexibility.

“The companies that are considered employers of choice for this young generation are employers who offer a good menu of flexible options,” Kunkel said. “As the work force shifts and more millenials come in, the demand for flexibility is going to go up.”

Those who already work for the appliance maker can be on a schedule that allows them to work from home one or two days a week and come into the office the other days.

“We have a number of employees who live in Chicago,” Kunkel said. “It makes more sense for them to not have to commute every day from Chicago. This allows them to work from home and only have to travel to Benton Harbor a couple days a week.”

Kunkel said the work-from-home policy is most commonly used among women, particularly when they are trying to balance their needs with children.

For parents, it can be a little unpredictable sometimes when a child is going to be sick or when school gets canceled.

“Those are (on a) case-by-case basis when people need that flexibility,” Kunkel said. “Dual-career couples tend to be in a situation where maybe one member of the couple may work for Whirlpool, but gets assigned to a different geographical location for a period of time. That individual might need to work remotely.”

Whirlpool has had these policies in place for at least a decade. In the last four or five years, Kunkel said they really began the work place initiative with open work places, bringing your own device capability and shifting to laptops.

While Barfell’s transition to working from home part-time was sudden, it is something he has welcomed.

In his previous role with Whirlpool, he was in the procurement area, doing a lot of analytics at his desk for the majority of the week.

“This new opportunity came along, and by incorporating so much travel and long hours for events, it kind of established itself,” Barfell said. “Times are changing as well as the perception that if you are not sitting at your desk, you are not doing your job. You can be just as effective at home or on the road.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 3, 2016)

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